Saturday, May 14, 2016

PLN Journal Week 14: 5 Thoughts on Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Inclusion

This is the final blog post in my "PLN Journal" series for San Jose State University's INFO 233 School Library Media Centers. I am glad that this assignment has given me a reason to blog more regularly since I love writing, and today the topic that I focus on is one that I hold close to my heart and wrestle with often: culture in terms of both diversity and inclusion. This is also a timely reflection since the school where I work as a Teacher Librarian is hosting its annual Multicultural Fair this next week.

Now to begin, I want to make it clear that I am no expert in this area. This is a subject that I care about, but I do not claim to have answers for "solving racism." What I do offer, though, are five related thought suggestions based on my own experiences and resources that I have found personally helpful.

1) Expanding Our Understanding of Culture

When working in Career Services at Ashford University, I had the opportunity to participate in various professional conferences, and out of the many workshops I attended, one that continues to stick with me was Dr. Daniel Pascoe Aguilar's session regarding multicultural competence.

This discussion expanded my idea of culture to include, but also go beyond, ethnicity alone. Inspired by content shared by Dr. Aguilar, I posted the three signs that follow in my school library last year during our Multicultural Fair, and it prompted some rich discussion with students.

By expanding our understanding of culture to be more complex, what I find helpful is that the dialogue shifts from being framed as a dichotomy of "us" versus "them." We each have unique cultural identities, and when we connect in relationship, there are aspects of our identities that give (or don't give) us privilege in different ways. To me, this helps exemplify how we are all responsible for making our communities more understanding, respectful, safe, and inclusive.

A related idea with culture is that we look beneath the surface to what may not be physically visible. The question posed below also connects with the "cultural iceberg" model that I was introduced to by CSU San Marcos librarians who recently visited our Library Council. I like how this encourages us to rethink assumptions that we may make about others and to aim at knowing people more deeply when seeking to understand them.

2) Seeing Shades of Gray

Yesterday afternoon, some of my regulars who hang out in the library after their school day has ended were getting a little loud, and so I went over to check on them. As it turns out, they were engaging in a passionate debate about immigration. Now, mind you, it was a Friday afternoon, and they could have been doing countless other things, but chose instead to engage in political discussion.

This was actually not that surprising to me since students this year have been particularly inspired by classroom debate projects and have been known to organize impromptu, moderated debates in the library on other occasions. Still, the topics are often more along the lines of arguing about dress code than national policy.

In any case, I listened in along with other observers, until at one point a student asked me for my take. I did not take a side, but I shared advice I remember learning from the Teacher Librarian I worked with over fifteen years ago, when I was her Library Technician and still in my early twenties. She told me how, as she has gotten older, she has learned is that there is not much in life that is black and white - instead, things are really just shades of gray. As I age, I must concur.

While I can see the importance of being able to form arguments, I also challenge the premise of a debate structure when it comes to decisions about human lives. Instead of working by default from a framework that allows only one side to win, when may it be appropriate to set a goal of seeking understanding?

3) Getting to Know People's Stories

In the case of the immigration debate, I did admittedly cringe when hearing a lot of statements starting with an accusatory-sounding "they," and so I did add a challenge for both sides to consider how they might examine the issues without making blanket assumptions about whole groups of people. 

While I didn't have time to expand on that idea with them, it reminds me of a big takeaway from working on a team project for INFO 237 School Library Media Materials regarding cultural competency. As powerless as I may feel when thinking about the complexity of racially-based conflicts that persist, the solution my group arrived at, and that I continue to embrace, is the simple sharing of stories.

Our professor, Dr. Mary Ann Harlan, emphasized how the sharing of diverse stories importantly serves two purposes. Stories may serve as mirrors when they reflect one's experiences, but they may also serve as windows, allowing people to learn about the lives of others and to develop empathy.

4) Detecting Bias, Including Our Own

Earlier, I referenced a meeting with CSU San Marcos librarians. The main focus of their visit was to share best practices regarding teaching students research skills, and this included a healthy side conversation about bias. The San Marcos librarians explained that while students are commonly instructed to detect bias when evaluating information, the false belief is that content is either biased or unbiased. I appreciated the distinction that all sources have a bias, because all people have a bias. As they clarified, our task is rather in seeing it.

I shared this idea with a class that recently visited the library for a lesson on evaluating information sources, and we also talked about the concept of unconscious bias. Speaking personally, I shared how one of the best ways that I become aware of my own unconscious biases is by changing my routine and placing myself in different settings such as when I travel. This, however, makes me think of my students and how I will learn that they have never flown anywhere or how they spend nearly all of their time in about a five mile radius. With this in mind, I return to the power of stories since they may function as immersive even when it may not be possible to travel or gain exposure to different experiences in the physical world.

5) Practicing Micro-Kindnesses

I mentioned a couple of times the importance of sharing stories, but something that may be even more immediately implemented in daily practice is basic kindness. Judson Laughter suggested the terminology of "micro-kindnesses" as a corollary to microagressions, and what I like about this term is that it deflates expectations of grand gestures and extraordinarily noble efforts. Micro-kindnesses are about the everyday interactions that we have with one another, something as simple as smiling and acknowledging others when walking past them. This also reminds me of Toni Morrison's call: "Does your face light up?" I ask myself this question regularly both at work and at home - and while I fail many times due to being tired, stressed, or when zoning out - I believe in this standard and re-commit myself to it again and again.

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